Ecclesiastes Explained: Unraveling the Negative Connotations.
The book of Ecclesiastes is perhaps the most undervalued book in the canon of Scripture. Sadly, Laymen, pastors, and even some scholars fail to understand its contents. It is also a common misconception among Christians today that Ecclesiastes contains contradictions and Agnostic sentiments. It is these dogmatic and unverified beliefs that cause doubts in its canonicity. Others posit that it is the work of later editors.[i]
Qoheleth, “the preacher” has been critiqued with various sentiments from scholars and some contend that his literature is uninspired.[ii] This assessment of Ecclesiastes will defend its theological contents.
The below study will attempt to objectively observe the particular nuances in the literature in order graft a thematic model of the book. These observations will delve into the literature in an exegetical manner and investigate any common categories.
Ecclesiastes is a book that contains wisdom literature and is mostly an autobiographical reflection genre. Ecclesiastes is layered with reflections from the author’s observations throughout his lifetime.[iii] There is a mixture of rhetorical questions, stories, and proverbial quotations.[iv] Scholars have varying opinions on the literary content found within the book; some contend it is mostly comprised of prose while others contend it is dominated by poetry.[v] Qoheleth draws from his observations in an alarmingly honest way; he posited the meaning of it all. Qoholeth wrote with a tongue in cheek kind of sarcasm that is refreshing and perhaps, unlike any other book in the canon.
Some scholars posit that Qoheleth was quoting wisdom literature and then contrasting it with his own views, but there are no identifying markers in the text.[vi] It is likely that if the author was quoting from an earlier tradition he would have identified so.[vii] The author also stated in the text “I have seen” which leads the present author to contend that the proverbial materials in Ecclesiastes are original thoughts, reflections, and opinions from the author.
The autobiographical information in Ecclesiastes contains two genres, example stories, and reflections.[viii] Example stories are identified by a personal truth the author wished to pass to his audience. The Hebrew word ראה (rā·ʾā(h)) is translated as “see”, “observe”, and “consider” occurs forty-seven times and is instrumental in identifying example stories.[ix] These stories begin with an opening such as “I have seen everything in my days” and lead into the observation and conclude with the moral to be learned. Ecclesiastes 4:13-16 elucidates this genre:
Opening: Better a poor and wise youth
Than an old and foolish king who will be
admonished no more.
Example Story: For he comes out of prison to be king,
I saw all the living who walk under the sun;
They were with the second youth who
stands in his place.
There was no end of all the people over
whom he was made king;
Moral: Yet those who come afterward will not
rejoice in him.
Surely this also is vanity and grasping for
The example story begins with the observation that it is better to be poor and possess wisdom than to have a kingdom and no wisdom at all. Qoheleth noted that the youth had his companions with him while the King that ruled over all the people had no one to celebrate him after his death. The moral to be drawn is that wisdom is accompanied with celebration.
This second autobiographical genre informs the reader via musings and truths drawn from firsthand observations. Their structure is less obvious than the aforementioned example story. Reflections begin in a similar manner to the example stories with a statement such as “I have seen.”[x] They differ by incorporating proverbs, and rhetorical questions. Like the example story, reflections conclude with a moral to be understood.
The word hě·ḇěl translated as “vanity” in The New King James Bible occurs thirty-eight times in Ecclesiastes and has a number of meanings. In Ecclesiastes, it is always translated as a form of vanity but has other meanings such as “vapor” or “breath.”[xi] The other meanings should be considered when exegeting Ecclesiastes. A simple translation of hě·ḇěl does a disservice to the reader; perhaps, a better translation of the word hě·ḇěl is “incomprehensible” or “meaningless.” The key to interpreting Ecclesiastes is determining how the components of each genre support the concluding moral. In these, Qoheleth expresses his main rationale. As in the case of Ecclesiastes 4 above, God is challenging people to make meaningful relationships so that they may enjoy life. This moral seems out of place when a naive interpretation is rendered, but one must understand the principles of hermeneutics in order to extract a true understanding.
The Hebrew word הבל (hě·ḇěl) occurs many times throughout the text and applies to a number of situations.[xii] Qoheleth observed joy, wisdom, labor, and injustice. Depending on the topic, the connotation of hě·ḇěl will vary. Miles Custis notes, “The main difference is that outside of Ecclesiastes, הבל usually describes things while Qoheleth uses הבל to describe situations.”[xiii] For example, הבל occurs sixty-nine times in sixty different verses in the Hebrew Old Testament. The first mention of הבל is in the name of Abel, Adam and Eve’s son. The subsequent occurrence is in 2 Kings 17:15 and is translated to mean “idols.” Another meaning is “breath” and is found in the book of Job, where Job welcomed the thought of his own death.[xiv] In the five books of Psalms, הבל is translated as “vapor” or “futile.” In the majority of occurrences outside of Ecclesiastes, הבל connotes something negative.[xv]
The question still remains as to what Qoheleth meant by his usage of hě·ḇěl. Some scholars contend that the usage of hě·ḇěl applies to situations which seemingly have no answer.[xvi] Twenty-one of the thirty-eight occurrences of hě·ḇěl in Ecclesiastes is in reference to a judgment made by Qoheleth. One can see from Qoheleth’s judgments that he believed there should have been a rational link between deed and outcome.[xvii] Even though Qoheleth witnessed wickedness replacing justice, he still held to the belief that God would judge them both in the end.[xviii]
A phrase that is often parallel with הבל is רְעוּת רוּחַ and is translated as “grasping for the wind,” and applies to judgments concerning human exertion. In Qoheleth’s mind human effort was useless because one left the world in the same condition entered into it.[xix] It seems to this author that Qoheleth applied hě·ḇěl to situations he saw as absurd and offensive because the outcomes were contrary to his beliefs of justice.
One should be careful how hě·ḇěl is applied in Ecclesiastes. For instance, when Qoheleth observed the wisdom of the poor man that delivered the city; it was not the wisdom that was absurd to Qoheleth. Qoholeth saw that the people forgot the wise man that saved them and it was this act he deemed offensive.[xx]
Labor is the second identifiable theme in Ecclesiastes. The Hebrew word עָמָל (ā·māl) translated as “labor” or “toil.”[xxi] It occurs twenty-eight times in Ecclesiastes and of the 222 verses in the book ā·māl occurs in nearly thirteen percent of the text. Repeatedly Qoheleth was discontented with leaving the fruits of his labor to one that did not toil for it.[xxii] Qoheleth also contemplated whether the one to inherit his great works would have wisdom or not. This illustrates that it was not the labor he saw as “vain” or “absurd” but that the situation was unknowable.[xxiii] He did not know whether or not his hard work would be undone after his passing. Contrast this situation with another in Ecclesiastes and one can reasonably infer Qoheleth’s meaning. In Ecclesiastes 4:7-8 Qoheleth reflected on one who had no companion to help with the labor or to inherit it. This, Qoheleth also viewed as hě·ḇěl. This passage also reinforces the notion that Qoheleth valued the work but did not appreciate situations which presented a benefit for an unwise individual that did not exert personal effort for it. That is to say, Qoheleth believed rewards should postdate deeds.
Qoheleth also observed that a laboring man’s rest is sweet; if Qoheleth saw labor as “vain” then a laboring man’s rest would not be described as sweet. To further strengthen the argument for Qoheleth’s appreciation of work, one needs to look no further than Ecclesiastes 2:24; Qoheleth states, “Nothing is better for a man than that he should eat and drink, and that his soul should enjoy good in his labor. This also, I saw, was from the hand of God.” Qoheleth saw hard work as a delight from God that was to be enjoyed by the laborer while he was still living.
The Hebrew word חָכְמָה is always translated as “wisdom” or “wisely” in the book of Ecclesiastes. Much like ā·māl above, it occurs twenty-eight times in the book. Qoheleth values wisdom greatly and never spoke of this in a negative fashion. He sought out wisdom and knowledge even though he considered it an endless task by his use of רְעוּת רוּחַ (grasping for the wind).[xxiv] Qoheleth makes several statements concerning wisdom which one can use to infer his valuation of it; he said wisdom was, “good with an inheritance,” “a defense,” “better than strength,” and “better than weapons.” Qoheleth’s following statement illustrates his understanding of the proper use of wisdom, “If the ax is dull, and one does not sharpen the edge, then he must use more strength; but wisdom brings success.”[xxv] Qoheleth viewed wisdom as knowledge which brought about a successful outcome.
Qoheleth considers undispatched wisdom as useless and those that did not possess it would be foolish. Qoheleth also believed sinners destroyed the work of the wise.[xxvi] He contended that wisdom was a gift from God in which a man in any social class could receive.[xxvii]
Another theme in Ecclesiastes is מִשְׁפָּט (miš·pāṭ) which is translated as either “justice” or “judgment.”[xxviii] Four of the six occurrences of miš·pāṭ In Ecclesiastes refers to a perceived injustice. The first observation made by Qoheleth was wickedness in the place of sound judgment.[xxix] This disturbed Qoholeth, but he also noted that God would judge them both in the end.[xxx] Qoheleth told his contemporary audience not to “marvel at the matter” when they see the “perversion of justice” because God would judge the matter in the end. Qoheleth regarded proper judgment as a faculty exercised by the wise.[xxxi] He also believed individuals should be patient to await judgment even if it meant enduring hardship.[xxxii] Ecclesiastes 11:9 illustrates Qoheleth’s belief in God and his judgment; he stated, “Rejoice, O young man, in your youth, and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth; walk in the ways of your heart, and in the sight of your eyes; but know that for all these God will bring you into judgment.”[xxxiii]
Yr’ and Yare
Two Hebrew words are used for “fear” in Ecclesiastes, ירא (yr’) and יָרֵא (yā·rē(ʾ)). The first word (yr’) connotes reverence for a higher authority.[xxxiv] The use of (yr’) can be demonstrated in Ecclesiastes 5:6 where the context of the verse is proper conduct in the house of God. Qoheleth’s instructions were to never make an excuse for sin, which he perceived as a “vain” (hě·ḇěl) endeavor; he stated at the end of the verse too, “fear God.” One can surmise that Qoheleth believed that obedience was better than sacrifices to the Lord based on the opening of chapter five.[xxxv] Qoheleth also believed fearing the Lord would prolong one’s life.[xxxvi]
According to Swanson, The second word translated as fear (yā·rē(ʾ)) can also connote a “profound reverence to a superior, which may include ritual observance.”[xxxvii] Four of the eight occurrences of fear in Ecclesiastes are yā·rē(ʾ). I contend that yā·rē(ʾ) should be translated as “worship” based on the context of the verses. Further strengthening this argument is the use of both of the Hebrew words translated as fear in Ecclesiastes 8:12. If both of the words are translated as fear it makes the text redundant and renders it inept. With ya·rē(ʾ) translated as worship, one can infer Qoheleth’s beliefs regarding true and acceptable worship of God. He believed worship was a matter of the heart and not outward religious rituals.[xxxviii]
The final theme is one of pleasure and enjoyment. The word שִׂמְחָה (śim·ḥā(h)) occurs eight times in Ecclesiastes and is always indicative of a cheerful emotion.[xxxix] According to Qoheleth, God gave joy to men that were good in his sight.[xl] He also stated, “God keeps him busy with the joy of his heart.”[xli] Qoheleth celebrated enjoyment because, unlike the other themes, it stemmed directly from worshipping God and seemed to remain with upright men through their entire lives.[xlii] He saw enjoyment as integral to having a good life on earth and commanded his people to do so.[xliii]
The theme of joy seems to be at the heart of Ecclesiastes.[xliv] Qoheleth stated several times that God brought joy to those that were good and he kept them busy with the joys of their heart. Qoheleth observed that worshipping God properly brought joy into a person’s heart because God saw them as good. He also wanted his readers to serve the Lord and enjoy their lives even though the work they toiled for would not benefit them in the end because death eventually comes to all.[xlv] Qoheleth told his readers, “nothing is better for them than to rejoice, and to do well in their lives, and also that every man should eat and drink and enjoy the good of all his labor—it is the gift of God.”[xlvi] Qoheleth also saw serving the Lord from an early age as instrumental to a joyful life.[xlvii] The concluding statement in Ecclesiastes sums the entire book up eloquently. The writer stated, “Fear God and keep His commandments, For this is man’s all. For God will bring every work into judgment, Including every secret thing, Whether good or evil.”[xlviii]
Unfortunately, many fail to grasp an accurate understanding of Ecclesiastes. Various scholars have emphasized a negative interpretation of the text which is often misleading. The Hebrew literature has many words that are similar, yet connote a range of nuances which are superficially translated in many English versions. Hě·ḇěl is often translated as “vanity” but from the above hě·ḇěl was demonstrated to have a much larger semantic range and can be rendered as “unknowable” or “incomprehensible.” If these translations were rendered into the English Bibles in the proper context much of the supposed pessimism would vanish.
It is reasonable to conclude that Qoheleth appreciated hard work, wisdom, justice, fear of God, and joy, and it was with these themes in mind in which he made judgments. Qoheleth saw these themes as essential to living the best life for God. He detested evil, unwise men that perverted justice and did not possess a reverence for God. These individuals made the lives of honorable people more difficult and often squandered the good works of others after their deaths. Qoheleth did not consider laborious effort vanity but contended that men should enjoy their labor as he saw it was from the hand of God. Qoheleth asserted that God was a just God and would judge both the wicked and righteous in the end, and it was better to serve God through obedience than to offer the sacrifices of animals to cover one’s disobedience.[xlix] Joy was the main focus of Qoheleth; he told his audience several times to be joyful. The other themes in Ecclesiastes provide the backdrop in order for one to experience a joyful life. At the heart of the entire book, the author asked his audience to be content with their works, implement justice, and to fear the judgment of God to come; if his audience were to do these, they would have a meaningful and blissful life.
[i]. Miles Custis, The End of the Matter: Understanding the Epilogue of Ecclesiastes (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2012), 6.
[ii]. Bruce K. Waltke and Charles Yu. An Old Testament Theology: An Exegetical, Canonical, and Thematic Approach. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007), 946.
[iii]. William W. Klein, Craig L. Blomberg, and Robert L. Hubbard, JR. Intoduction to Biblical Interpretation: Revised and Updated. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2004), 392.
[v]. Duane A. Garrett, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, vol. 14, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1993), 271.
[vi]. Custis, The End of the Matter: Understanding the Epilogue of Ecclesiastes, 43.
[viii]. Klein, Blomberg, and Hubbard, JR. Intoduction to Biblical Interpretation: Revised and Updated, 393.
[ix]. James Swanson, Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains : Hebrew (Old Testament) (Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997).
[x]. Klein, Blomberg, and Hubbard, JR. Intoduction to Biblical Interpretation: Revised and Updated, 392.
[xi]. Swanson, Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains : Hebrew (Old Testament).
[xii]. Custis, The End of the Matter: Understanding the Epilogue of Ecclesiastes, 21–22.
[xiii]. Ibid., 13.
[xiv]. The New King James Version (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1982), Job 7:16.
[xv]. Custis, The End of the Matter: Understanding the Epilogue of Ecclesiastes, 11.
[xvi]. Ibid., 14.
[xvii]. Ibid., 16.
[xviii]. The New King James Version, Ec 3:17.
[xix]. Custis, The End of the Matter: Understanding the Epilogue of Ecclesiastes, 20.
[xx]. The New King James Version, Ec 9:13-17.
[xxi]. Swanson, Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains : Hebrew (Old Testament).
[xxii]. H. D. M. Spence-Jones, ed., Ecclesiastes, The Pulpit Commentary (London: Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1909), xviii; The New King James Version, Ec 1:18; 6:7.
[xxiii]. Ibid., Ec 1:19.
[xxiv]. Ibid., Ec 1:17.
[xxv]. Ibid., Ec 10:10.
[xxvi]. Ibid., Ec 1:18.
[xxvii]. Ibid., Ec 2:26; 9:16.
[xxviii]. Swanson, Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains : Hebrew (Old Testament).
[xxix]. The New King James Version, Ec 3:16.
[xxxi]. Ibid., Ec 8:5.
[xxxii]. Ibid., Ec 8:6.
[xxxiii]. Ibid., Ec 11:9.
[xxxiv]. Swanson, Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains : Hebrew (Old Testament).
[xxxv]. The New King James Version, Ec 5:1.
[xxxvi]. Ibid., Ec 8:13.
[xxxvii]. Swanson, Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains : Hebrew (Old Testament).
[xxxviii]. The New King James Version, Ec 5:1.
[xxxix]. Swanson, Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains : Hebrew (Old Testament).
[xl]. The New King James Version, Ec 2:26.
[xli]. Ibid., Ec 5:20.
[xlii]. Ibid., Ec 8:15.
[xliv]. Duane A. Garrett, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, vol. 14, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1993), 273.
[xlv]. Ibid., Ec 2:9.
[xlvi]. Ibid., Ec 3:12-13.
[xlvii]. Ibid., Ec 11:9-12:1.
[xlviii]. Ibid., Ec 12:13–14.
[xlix]. Ibid., Ec 5:1; 9:2.
Custis, Miles. The End of the Matter: Understanding the Epilogue of Ecclesiastes. Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2012.
Garrett, Duane A. Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs. Vol. 14. The New American Commentary. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1993.
Gesenius, Wilhelm, and Samuel Prideaux Tregelles. Gesenius’ Hebrew and Chaldee Lexicon to the Old Testament Scriptures. Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2003.
Landes, George M. Building Your Biblical Hebrew Vocabulary: Learning Words by Frequency and Cognate. Vol. 41. Resources for Biblical Study. Atlanta, GA: Society of Biblical Literature, 2001.
Spence-Jones, H. D. M., ed. Ecclesiastes. The Pulpit Commentary. London: Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1909.
Swanson, James. Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains : Hebrew (Old Testament). Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997.